Beneath its scarfie reputation, Dunedin is a Mecca of literary-mindedness. The Octagon surrounds a statue of Burns the Bard, Dunedin was the birthplace of our national anthem, and a disproportion number of New Zealand’s best writers have strong links to Otago.

The difficulty as a Dunedin newibe is to know where to go to find this “underground” lit scene. But you don’t need to be a bibliophile to look beyond the UBS. Allow me – a self-confessed, book-obsessed student of English – to share with you the location of various rabbit holes which lead into the subsurface literary scene.

Before we start ...

First things first: Coffee. Yes, if you’re going to delve totally into Dunedin’s lit scene, then Circadian Rhythm needs to be on your map. This gluten free, vegan/vegetarian cafe sells delicious coffee and a range of (surprisingly delicious) homemade treats. Its qualification for this article, however, is its status as Dunedin’s local poet haunt. The regulars are authentically “artsy,” and anyone is welcome to attend the frequent public poetry readings. Now that we are adequately caffeinated let’s begin with a nearby, student-friendly store.


Cnr Great King & St Davids Streets

If you’re studying the Humanities, you’ve probably stopped by this famous secondhand bookstore (both Billy and Richard studied History), and many of you will be regular customers for Richard and Billy. Even Brian, from Vintage Books, admits that Scribes is “...the best book shop in town.”
Regardless of what book you’re looking for, Scribes should be your first stop. The premises are basically on campus, and – amazingly – it’s open seven days a week.
Students constitute a large portion of Scribes’s daily clientele, and Billy’s disappointed that he can’t help me in my search for Dr. Johnson’s Dictionary (“We don’t have Dr. Johnson, which is a pain in the bum”). “We want to encourage students to use the shop ... When I was a student, I was an avid customer here.”

“Have you been out to the corridor?” I haven’t, so Billy leads the way to a passage at the back of the shop. Here there are even more shelves of tightly-packed books.

“These are our modern first editions. Basically, hardbacks published in the twentieth century.” He then gestures to the “Facilities room.” It appears wall-less; I see only boxes upon boxes of books.

“As you can see, there are a lot of student texts out here.” In attempted explanation, Billy shrugs and says, “Sometimes too much stuff comes in ... but we don’t want to say “no” to good books.”

The shop has been around for over 30-years; Richard has been the owner for the last 13-years, and Billy has been working here for two. Within this relatively short time, Billy has developed a sixth sense for book searching. Despite wall-to-wall shelving, and piles of books on the floor, he claims that he knows his way around the books, or at least “knows what we haven’t got.”

He knows that they haven’t got a copy of Dr. Johnson, yet Billy doesn’t hesitate to recommend other bookstores which may help my search.

As we’re talking, the shop telephone rings. Does Scribes perchance have anything on Scotch whisky? Of course! Billy dashes across the room with certainty. I’m stunned. Could this be a “planted volunteer” situation? But no, he simply knows his stock.

It’s the public interaction that Billy enjoys the most about the job. “We have lovely people coming into the shop, and there’s always lots of interesting conversation ... You just can’t take anyone at face value.” Indeed.


19 North Road

Newer than Scribes, though clearly cast from the same mould, is Open:Books. Beckford Ritchie has been in the book-selling trade for “thirty years, on and off, in Dunedin and Oamaru.” He opened this store two years ago, yet it already holds more than enough books for a lifetime.

“We started out without a book on the floor, but we can’t achieve that now. Untidiness is good, because it’s a sign that this is an active place!”

Yes, the store is cluttered, but the overflowing shelves reflect Beck’s unbridled passion for books.

“We have huge range,” he gestures around the room, “Westerns, romances, science fiction, all that stuff, right through to local histories. We also have a collection of antiquarian stock.”

“I also do quite a trade in old maps,” he explains as he presents a beautifully preserved map of Antarctica. “We also sell sheet music, and records. We sold clothing patterns for a while, but they just didn’t move on very well. They’ve got to be worth their shelf space.”

The store’s barrage of books would certainly satisfy most mainstream customers, but Beck’s ephemera collection was what really got me excited about this place.

From behind the desk, he produced a 1955 New Zealand Government Stock Application Form, a copy of The Rural New Yorker, dated “The week ending Saturday May 21. 1859,” and a New Zealand Ladies Golf Union raffle ticket from 1952 (the lucky winner took home a Miss Simplicity Washing Machine). His “Found in Books” display is also worth a look. Ah, forgot your glasses? There are plenty of pairs in a container on the counter; a sign helpfully suggests, “Borrow a pair of ours!”

The verdict? The shop seemed to have an abundance of good books, but Beck’s bric-a-brac would undoubtedly be the reason for my return to Open:Books.


Shop 7, Gardens Shopping Mall, 4 North Road

This shop is located on the same road as Open:Books, but that’s about all they have in common.

The Hamblyns pride themselves on the organisation of the store. The shelves are “library quality,” and the books are in pristine nick and neatly ordered. If you’re looking for an entertaining read at a reduced price, this is the place to go.

Mike and Cheryl Hamblyn opened this store “from scratch, seven years, eight months, and about two weeks ago.” Mike is a former librarian, and Cheryl still works part-time at the Dunedin Public Library.

It’s clear that customer satisfaction is their main priority. “We never point to a book,” Mike explains, “we get up and say, ‘Come this way...’.”

If the Hamblyns don’t have the book that you’re after, they’ll do their best to find it for you. “We call ourselves the Number One Book Detective Agency.”

In one case, it took Mike and Cheryl five years to track down a book for a customer. “Yes, five years [since the initial request], we called them and told them that we had the book. They never asked us to stop looking, so we didn’t.”

With such customer service on offer, it’s no surprise that they claim to have over 400 “regulars.”

Throughout the interview, Cheryl was fossicking through several boxes of recently-delivered recipe books. Every now and then she held up a book for Mike to see, and in response he exclaimed, “My goodness, Cheryl, I would have missed that one!” Oh, they ooze with the slick of a well-oiled marital machine.

They’re a charming couple, and their flattering hospitality was much appreciated. Don’t hesitate to have a nosey on your way home from Gardens New World.


27 Waikana Street

Broad Bay (Yeah I know, but it’s worth the trip. Alternatively, you can browse online at

Vintage Books is a home-based bookstore run by Brian Nicholls. If you’re seriously interested in books, then you’ve just got to go and have a look at this shop. It’s a fantastic source of first editions, as well as New Zealand non-fiction (“We’ve got a few thousand books about New Zealand history,” Brian casually points out).

“Basically, if someone can’t get a copy of something somewhere else, they’ll come to me and I’ll find it.” Admittedly it’s not a common hang-out for students: “Most students can’t afford the books here, but some of the locals borrow them regularly.” “Lots of people come to browse, even if they aren’t interested in buying ... One little lady walked in here and said, “Oh, it’s a garage sale!” I suppose it’s a garage, and these books are for sale ...”

From here my interview drifted off-topic, and instead Brian and I spoke for over an hour about left-handedness, Carroll, Yeats, Frost, Keats, a book that he’d published about a prisoner of war, and the potential longevity of J.K. Rowling’s books (“Was she a writer, or simply an inspirer?”).

(For Want Of A Better Title)

Entrance of the Old Chief Post Office

During the summer break, writer Anna Chinn and company set up a “free library” in the covered space outside the Old Chief Post Office. Anna claims that the public project was simply “a dada or absurdist project: Being uncertain of the meaning of life, I at least am determined to lighten the mood of existence by doing unlikely things in public places.”

The site happens to be beside a major bus stop, and Anna says she liked to think of people browsing for a book – or perhaps adding or subtracting from the collection – while they waited for a bus.

Unfortunately the library has since been dismantled, and a sign in its place reads, “Free shelves, please do take ’em.” (This proved an effective way to uninstall the library).

Although the library’s no longer there, I’ve included it in my tour of the Dunedin book scene to remind you to watch this space. Not the Post Office space specifically, but the “underground” space of our city’s literary movement: It’s unexpectedly exciting.

I’ll be honest with you – I approached this article with an agenda. I require Dr. Johnson’s Dictionary: A Selection for ENGL476 (my request in Scribes was legitimate). My search is thus far unsuccessful; if you have a copy for sale, please do let me know.

In the meantime, however, I’ve gained unique insight into Dunedin’s second-hand book situation, and I managed to find three more copies of Alice (I’m never one to say no to Wonderland).
This article first appeared in Issue 4, 2012.
Posted 4:27pm Sunday 18th March 2012 by Katie Kenny.